Monday, 3 February 2014

my dad, part 1: a broken heart

I posted a link on the Facebook page today - a response from author (and former alcoholic) Glennon Doyle Melton to the death by overdose of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. In her blog post, she calls on all who are emotionally wounded to "stop running from your broken heart. A broken heart won't kill you, but running will."

I can relate to that. For years I ran from memories of my dad. But I hung on tight to the bad coping strategies I'd chosen (toxic trees!), even though I'd half forgotten where they came from, until God brought things to a head in 2006.

Somewhere in the middle of that year my sister rang from New Zealand to tell me she'd learned, from a virtual stranger on the street, that my dad was dying of cancer. At that point I had a choice to make. Take courage and go back, or walk away from the one opportunity I might have to make peace with him.

So this is my story ... it will probably span over several posts and I'm telling it for a few reasons. First, to remember and deal with the roots of my own pain; second, to make a case for abusers who are damaged people, just like us; and finally, to share my l-o-o-ng journey towards forgiveness in the hope that it may encourage others who wonder if they will ever be able to forgive.


My dad, my older brother & me (with the bucket)

I don't have many warm fuzzy memories of my dad, but there are a few.

We kids were born and grew up in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where my parents - who were out there working for a mission organisation - met and fell in love.

We lived in a crude split-level house on a mountain, built by my dad using timber from the mill he'd constructed in the village below. I remember him bringing ants' nests home from the jungle to feed our pet parrots; building a playhouse high in the branches of a tree in our backyard; and playing the guitar before bedtime while our parrots sang along with us from the rafters.

I also remember the day our little cast-iron cooking stove set fire to the thatched roof. My mum rushed us outside to the edge of the mountain while my dad ran barefoot up a ladder with buckets of water, burning his feet - somehow managing to save the house.

I remember hearing how my dad, as a young 20-something, told his parents he was leaving for New Guinea and they begged him not to go, promising him a house and a good job if he'd stay. He refused because he felt called to live for a purpose beyond himself.

Yo! That's me - the blonde with the coconut :-)

But there was a darker side to my dad.

In the very early days I mostly remember his anger - raging, violent anger; and his sheer hatred of my older brother, who was so terrified of my dad he could barely speak to him.

There's also a very early memory of abuse, when I was so young I couldn't fully understand what was going on - so young that the memories are just vague shadows in my mind.

My mum home-schooled me at first, but I wanted to attend a 'real school' with my older brother. So my parents relented and shortly after my 7th birthday my dad flew with me out to the coast and dropped me on the doorstep of the boarding school. I still remember the shock of realising he wasn't staying with me - leading to a year of homesickness, letters home begging my parents to come and get me, and finally sleep-walking and terrible nightmares.

Eventually the school called a psychologist in to administer some IQ tests and my parents were advised to take me home to a more settled environment in New Zealand, to cater for my strange combination of high IQ and extreme lack of social skills!

At around the same time my dad was diagnosed with a serious illness. He and my mum had flown in goats from the coast to set up a livelihood project for the people in our village who were hunter-gatherers, relying on good weather and fate to provide enough food for daily survival. They also poisoned rivers so the fish would float belly up into their nets; and then spent hours begging the spirits for forgiveness when people grew sick and died after eating the poisoned flesh.

My parents wanted to make life easier for them. But the goats came with an unwelcome guest - Brucellosis - a disease which ruined my dad's health. My mum's letters home to her family show the progression from occasional sweats and chills, to extreme weakness and even hallucinations. Doctors eventually advised my dad to leave while he still could. Since he was too weak to walk, the villagers took the front door off the house and used it as a stretcher to carry him down to the airstrip at the foot of the mountain.

Back "home" in New Zealand, we kids were like fish out of water, living in what was to us a foreign country. Since dad was too sick to work, my mum took on several jobs, finally settling as a florist in a business they started together.

She worked long hours while my dad spent most of his time at home - and it was then that the abuse began in earnest. One day, when I was around 13 years old and home sick from school, my dad showed up in the living room, stark naked, asking for a kiss. I knew something was wrong, but out of respect for my dad, I let him kiss me. That was all, that day - but it was the beginning of a nightmare lasting several years that blew our family apart. (to be continued)

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